TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Hails Retaking of Mosul Dam in Iraq

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
US President Barack Obama speaks about the US involvement in Iraq, as well as the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, August 18, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi and Kurdish forces wrested control of the dam early Monday, with air support from the U.S.

President Barack Obama praised Iraqi gains against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in recent days, as U.S.-backed forces wrested control of a key dam from the militant group.

On Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airpower, recaptured the strategic Mosul dam from the Sunni extremist group, both securing a vital source of electricity and preventing a catastrophic release of water that could have inundated parts of northern Iraq.

Speaking from the White House after returning early Monday for a brief interlude from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, Obama hailed the dam operation as a “major step forward” in the battle against ISIS.

“If that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic, with floods that would’ve threatened the lives of thousands of civilians and endanger our embassy compound in Baghdad,” Obama said. “Iraqi and Kurdish forces took the lead on the ground and performed with courage and determination. So this operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together and taking the fight to ISIL. If they continue to do so, they will have the strong support of the United States of America.”

U.S. Central Command has been carrying out strikes against ISIS targets near the dam with fighter, attack, bomber, and unmanned aerial assets since Saturday. On Sunday, Obama informed Congress that he had authorized strikes against ISIS targets near the dam.

“Let’s remember, ISIL poses a threat to all Iraqis and to the entire region,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the militant group. “They claim to represent Sunni grievances, but they slaughter Sunni men, women and children. They claim to oppose foreign forces, but they actively recruit foreign fighters to advance their hateful ideology. So the Iraqi people need to reject them and unite to begin to push them out of the lands that they’ve occupied, as we’re seeing at Mosul Dam.”

Obama also announced continued progress in the effort to build an international coalition to provide humanitarian assistance to northern Iraq, as well as working with the newly designated Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Albadi on building a more inclusive government in Iraq.

“This is going to take time,” Obama added. “There are going to be many challenges ahead. But meanwhile, there should be no doubt that the United States military will continue to carry out the limited missions that I’ve authorized: protecting our personnel and facilities in Iraq in both Erbil and Baghdad; and providing humanitarian support as we did on Mount Sinjar.”

TIME Iraq

Pope OKs Protecting Iraq Minorities, Wants UN OK

Francis
Pope Francis shows to the media a yellow ribbon he received by one of the relatives of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster during an airborne press conference on his journey back to Rome from Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. Gregorio Borgia—AP

(ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE) — Pope Francis has endorsed the use of force in Iraq to stop Islamic militants from attacking religious minorities but says the international community — and not just one country — should decide how to intervene.

Francis also said he and his advisers are considering whether he might go to northern Iraq to show solidarity with persecuted Christians, but are holding off on a decision for now.

In comments Monday to journalists returning from South Korea, Francis confirmed he will travel to the United States in September 2015 to attend a family rally in Philadelphia and was considering a three-city tour to address Congress in Washington and the United Nations in New York.

He said a Mexico stop on that trip was possible, as well as a separate visit to Spain.

TIME Military

Dam Yankees: U.S. Steps Up Bombing in Northern Iraq

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Smokes rises from U.S. air strikes near Mosul dam on Sunday. Ahmad Al-Ruhbye—AFP/Getty Images

But limiting strikes for political reasons may prove untenable

The Obama Administration made clear last week that its ban against U.S. “boots on the ground” inside Iraq only pertained to combat boots. Sunday, it went back to its dictionary and stretched the definition of “humanitarian” to include offensive bombing strikes against Islamist militants in northern Iraq.

That’s because ever since the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) seized the Mosul dam, it has had the power to release the reservoir behind it, turning the Tigris River downstream into Class V rapids with a 60-foot wall of water.

“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” President Barack Obama said in a letter to congressional leaders.

The U.S. military launched 23 airstrikes on ISIS targets over the weekend, including 14 on Sunday. A fleet of fighter-bombers, bombers and drones took out nearly 20 ISIS vehicles—mostly U.S.-built armor and Humvees that ISIS captured from retreating Iraqi forces—on Sunday alone. An Iraq military spokesman said Monday that Iraqi special forces and Kurdish fighters had regained control of the dam, although that claim has not been confirmed.

“These operations are limited in their nature, duration, and scope,” Obama said, “and are being undertaken in coordination with and at the request of the government of Iraq.”

The weekend air strikes nearly doubled the number the U.S. has launched in Iraq since they began Aug. 8, and marked the most coordinated military effort between U.S. and Iraqi forces since the U.S. military left the country in 2011.

Pentagon fingers are crossed that the combination of U.S. air strikes and Iraqi ground operations will be sufficient to defeat ISIS. Defense officials, and the White House, are acutely aware that the American public has no appetite for deeper involvement—military or otherwise—in Iraq.

The operation makes military sense, but justifying it using the original two-prong test—Obama said Aug. 7 that the U.S. would attack targets in Iraq only “to protect our American personnel, and… to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death”—may prove too convenient.

“This policy of not dealing with it as an ecosystem I think is wrong,” Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS on Sunday. “They have a long-term plan about where they’re going that would establish their caliphate from Beirut through Syria through Iraq.”

ISIS wants to create that caliphate from which it would seek to attack the U.S. and other targets in the west. Every time the Administration expands its military footprint in Iraq to deal with the threat—and justifies it on humanitarian grounds, or to protect U.S. personnel—it restrains its freedom to act the next time if stronger military action is required.

TIME Iraq

Kurdish Fighters Partially Retake Vital Iraqi Dam

Mideast Iraq
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter patrols near the Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq on Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. Khalid Mohammed—AP

Peshmerga forces appear to have partially captured the Mosul Dam from Sunni extremists, with support from U.S. air strikes and Iraqi commandos

Kurdish forces pushed deeper into territory held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) throughout Sunday and regained partial control over the strategically vital Mosul Dam as U.S. warplanes launched fresh sorties against the Sunni insurgents from the skies.

The U.S. Central Command confirmed that American aircraft launched at least 14 strikes against ISIS-manned armor, checkpoints and heavy weaponry positioned near the dam on the Tigris River in northern Iraq.

“These strikes were conducted under authority to support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces as they work together to combat [ISIS],” read a statement released by U.S. military officials. The aerial onslaught follows at least nine separate air strikes launched against ISIS positions earlier on Saturday.

It is seen as vital that the dam not be in ISIS hands, because the Sunni insurgents could either use it to choke off water supplies to the capital, Baghdad, and areas south of it, or they could destroy it and unleash catastrophic floods.

President Barack Obama authorized the use of American airpower against ISIS fighters on Aug. 8 following the group’s offensive blitz into Kurdish territory earlier this month. The strikes are the first such military incursion into Iraq since U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011 and were successful in alleviating the siege of Mount Sinjar.

However, analysts argue that U.S. involvement in Iraq may not be as limited as the Obama Administration hopes.

“For a President who wanted to leave [Iraq] and had the strong backing of his people, [Obama]’s now very much in Iraq, and I think the U.S. commitment and direct engagement in Iraq is going to be long term,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, tells TIME. “It’s not going to be easy to dislodge [ISIS], both militarily or even in the hearts and minds of Sunni Iraqis.”

Meanwhile, across the border in Syria, forces loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad launched their own strikes against ISIS’s stronghold in Raqqa.

The onslaught by the Syrian air force reportedly killed 31 militants along with eight civilians, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The regime wants to show the Americans that it is also capable of striking [ISIS],” Rami Abdel Rahman, the group’s director, told AFP.

ISIS forces currently control vast swaths of territory along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers spanning northeastern Syria across the border into western and northern Iraq. The group is currently fighting on multiple fronts against Kurdish militias, the Iraqi army, forces loyal to the Assad regime and opposition rebels in Syria in a bid to consolidate its self-declared Islamic caliphate.

TIME Iraq

Obama Authorizes Air Strikes in Iraq to Help Retake Dam

The U.S. is helping the Iraqi government reclaim the Mosul Dam

President Obama formally notified Congress on Sunday that he had authorized “limited” air strikes in Iraq to help the Iraqi Security Force combat the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement that Obama’s authorizations, which were done at the request of the Iraqi government, were consistent with the War Powers Resolution, which mandates congressional approval before the President can push the country into war.

The air strikes in Iraq were meant to help the ISF re-establish control over the Mosul Dam, an important site in the battle against the Sunni militant group.

“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities — including the U.S. embassy in Baghdad — and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” the statement says.

ISIS control of the dam gives it the position to force a famine on the rest of the Iraq or cause massive flooding.

U.S. Central Command announced that it conducted 14 air strikes on Sunday, successfully damaging or destroying a number of ISIS vehicles as well as an ISIS checkpoint. Central Command had previously announced nine air strikes on Saturday.

TIME Iraq

Why Iraq Is So Desperate to Retake Mosul Dam From ISIS

The militants could put a chokehold on millions of Iraqis' water supply — or destroy the dam and cause deadly, widespread flooding

+ READ ARTICLE

Updated Aug. 17 2:44 p.m. E.T.

When Saddam Hussein built the Mosul dam three decades ago it was meant to serve as a symbol of the strength of Iraq and his leadership. He was following a tradition of big, but often ill-considered infrastructure projects in some Middle East dictatorships that seem more like a muscle-flex by a country’s leader than a project for the people.

Now that dam — the country’s biggest, holding back 11 billion cubic meters of water and producing over 1,000 megawatts of electricity — is at the center of a military struggle between Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which took control of the structure on Aug. 7.

Kurdish forces retook part of the dam early Sunday, the Associated Press reported, aided by U.S. and Iraqi air strikes. The Americans brought along some serious hardware to the fight; a combination of bombers, fighter jets, attack planes and unmanned drones, according to U.S. Central Command, conducted 14 strikes on Sunday and nine the day before. The show of force proves that the threat posed by ISIS control of the dam is finally being taken seriously.

“We told the Iraqi government a month ago that we needed to protect this strategic structure,” said Shirouk al-Abayachi, a member of the Iraq parliament for the Civil Democratic Alliance, and previously an adviser to the Ministry of Water Resources. “Any group manipulating this dam away from its original purpose is dangerous.”

Control of the dam gives ISIS the ability to do exactly that, and the consequences could be devastating. The group has several ways to leverage its control of the dam, say experts. “One of the things Saddam Hussein was really good at in his reign was choking off water supplies to Shi‘ites in the south,” said Christopher Harmer, who is a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, and who served several stints with the U.S. army in Iraq. “ISIS now controls the water flowing into Baghdad and to the agrarian areas south of Baghdad. They are in a position to impose a famine on the rest of Iraq.”

Alternatively, the militants could destroy the dam, sending a 60-ft. wave ripping down the Tigris River, washing away Mosul, a city of 1.5 million people, and days later flooding Baghdad with meters of water. ISIS is unlikely to do that while Mosul remains under its control. But it means that Iraqi forces must take control of the dam, said Harmer, before making a move on Mosul.

But even with U.S. military help, retaking the large piece of infrastructure will not be easy. The ISIS militant army, which a year ago seemed like a relatively small extremist faction in Syria, now controls swaths of territory both there and here in Iraq, as well as shored-up weapons and influence.

The fear now is that with control of water and electricity, the dream of creating a caliphate — or an Islamic state — is becoming closer to a reality for the extremists, famed for enforcement of strict Islamic law, beheadings and massacres.

“Al-Qaeda has always been just a terrorist organization,” said Harmer. ISIS broke off from al-Qaeda last year and has since promoted itself as the premier jihadist organization. “Al-Qaeda kind of, sort of, talked about establishing a caliphate sometime in the future, but they never had any stated ambition of taking over a state. ISIS is showing a differing level of ambition. ISIS has said, We are going to run a state and therefore we are going to provide all of the state services.”

Even if ISIS doesn’t use Iraq’s biggest dam as a weapon, its fragile condition means it still poses an enormous threat while in the militants’ hands. In September 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described it as “the most dangerous dam in the world.” The dam is built on an unstable bed of sand, slit and clay and requires daily grouting just to hold back the water.

“Iraq alone cannot deal with this. The Mosul dam is in a critical situation with ISIS in control,” said al-Abayachi. Just weeks of neglect could see the dam burst sending flood waters that could leave hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead in its path. “We need help from the international community.”

TIME Iraq

‘Massacre’ in Iraq as Strikes Hit Near Key Dam

The dam in Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq.
The dam in Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Khalid Mohammed—AP

IRBIL, Iraq — Islamic extremists in Iraq killed 80 Yazidi men and abducted their wives and children, officials and eyewitnesses said Saturday, insisting the religious community is still at risk after a week of U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes on the militants.

Airstrikes meanwhile targeted insurgents around Iraq’s largest dam, which was captured by the Islamic State extremist group earlier this month, according to nearby residents. It was not immediately clear who carried out the strikes.

The U.S. began launching airstrikes against the Islamic State extremist group a week ago, in part to prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of Yazidis stranded on a northern mountaintop. After most were able to escape with the help of Kurdish fighters, President Barack Obama took credit for alleviating the threat of genocide.

But on Friday afternoon Islamic State fighters who had surrounded the nearby village of Kocho 12 days ago, demanding its Yazidi residents convert or die, moved in.

The militants took the men away in groups of a few dozen and shot them dead with assault rifles on the edge of the village, according to a wounded man who escaped by feigning death.

The fighters then walked among the bodies, finishing off any who appeared to still be alive with their pistols, the 42-year-old man told the Associated Press by phone from an area where he was hiding out. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety.

“They thought we were dead, and when they went away, we ran away. We hid in a valley until sundown, and then we fled to the mountains,” he said.

A Yazidi lawmaker, a Kurdish security official and an Iraqi official from the nearby city of Sinjar gave similar accounts, saying Islamic State fighters had massacred scores of Yazidi men Friday afternoon after seizing Kocho.

All said they based their information on the accounts of survivors and warned that the minority group remains in danger despite the U.S. intervention. Their accounts matched those of two other Yazidi men, Qassim Hussein and Nayef Jassem, who said they spoke to other survivors.

The Yazidis are a centuries-old religious minority viewed as apostates by the extremist Islamic State group, which has claimed mass killings of its opponents in Syria and Iraq, often posting grisly photos on the Internet.

Yazidi lawmaker Mahma Khalil said the Yazidis in Kocho were given the choice to convert or die. “When the residents refused to do this, the massacre took place,” he said.

Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for Kurdish security forces, said the militants took the women and children of Kocho to the nearby city of Tal Afar, which is controlled by the Islamic State group.

Elsewhere in northern Iraq, residents living near the Mosul Dam told The Associated Press that the area was being targeted by airstrikes, but it was not immediately clear whether the attacks were being carried out by Iraq’s air force or the United States.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said the Defense Department, for the safety and security of American personnel, would not discuss reports of ongoing or future operations. Iraqi military spokesmen could not immediately be reached for comment.

The extremist group seized the dam on the Tigris River on Aug. 7. Residents near the dam say the airstrikes killed militants, but that could not immediately be confirmed. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for their safety.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled when the Islamic State group earlier this month captured the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border.

The plight of the Yazidis, tens of thousands of whom were stranded on a desert mountaintop for days, encircled by the Islamic extremists, prompted U.S. and Iraqi forces to launch aid drops. It also contributed to the U.S. decision to launch airstrikes against the militants, who were advancing on the Kurdish regional capital Irbil.

Most of those Yazidis were eventually able to escape to Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region with the help of Kurdish fighters, and on Thursday Obama said Americans should be proud of the U.S. efforts to save them.

“We broke the ISIL siege of Mount Sinjar, we helped vulnerable people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives.” Obama said, speaking from his vacation spot in Edgartown, Massachusetts. He was referring to the extremist group by its earlier acronym.

But the Islamic State group remains in control of vast swaths of northeastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, and the scale of the humanitarian crisis prompted the U.N. to declare its highest level of emergency earlier this week.

Some 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting since the Islamic State group’s rapid advance across northern and western Iraq began in June.

The decision to launch airstrikes marked the first direct U.S. military intervention in Iraq since the last troops withdrew in 2011, and reflected growing international concern about the extremist group.

On Saturday, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said it deployed a U.S.-made spy plane over northern Iraq to monitor the humanitarian crisis and movements of Islamic State militants. It said the converted Boeing KC-135 tanker, called a Rivet Joint, would monitor mobile phone calls and other communication.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Baghdad on Saturday, where he announced his government would provide more than 24 million euros ($32.2 million) in humanitarian aid to Iraq.

“The first German air force planes are flying to Irbil at this moment to deliver humanitarian aid,” Steinmeier said in a joint press conference with Iraq’s acting Foreign Minister Hussein Shahristani.

“In the current situation where minorities, especially in northern Iraq, are expelled and murdered, where children are orphaned and women are enslaved, humanitarian aid is extremely important.”

Two British planes also landed Saturday in the Kurdish regional capital Irbil carrying humanitarian supplies.

But Khalil, the Yazidi lawmaker, said the U.S. must do more to protect those fleeing the Islamic State group.

“We have been calling on the U.S. administration and Iraqi government to intervene and help the innocent people, but it seems that nobody is listening,” Khalil said.

 

TIME Iraq

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s Likely Next Leader, Has the World’s Toughest Job

Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, alongside his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, delivering a speech in which he announced withdrawing his candidacy for a third term in a photo released Aug. 14, 2014,
Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, alongside his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, delivering a speech in which he announced withdrawing his candidacy for a third term in a photo released Aug. 14, 2014, Iraqi Prime Minister's Office/AFP/Getty Images

With divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally stepping down, Iraq looks to a new leader. But can he knit his country back together?

Few in Iraq this morning were mourning the loss of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down Thursday night after months of domestic and international pressure.

“We are thirsty for change. We had this government since 2003 and still it’s not united. We want someone now who can unite Iraq,” said Ammar Al-Jaf, watching al-Maliki’s resignation re-run on television in his barbershop in Erbil. A Sunni who grew up in Baghdad, like many here, he says al-Maliki favored his own Shiite—sect and in so doing deepened divisions between the people of Iraq.

Even in refugee camps, filled with Iraqis who fled the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) in June, there were calls for al-Maliki to step down. Many displaced Iraqis said they fled because they feared being caught up in battles between Iraqi government troops and ISIS, but still preferred the rule of the Islamist militants to al-Maliki’s Shiite-first agenda.

File photo of Haider Abadi at a news conference in Baghdad
Haider al-Abadi at a news conference in Baghdad in July 2014. Ahmed Saad—Reuters

The hope now is that Haider al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker and the man named to replace al-Maliki, will be able to bring Iraq’s divided political factions together. “Al-Abadi promised to support dialogue with the Sunnis and said that he will consult Kurdish and Sunni factions,” said Sarmad al-Taee an Iraqi journalist and commentator. He argues that al-Maliki ran Iraq and his own Al-Dawa party with orders rather than discourse, alienating Kurds, Sunni and eventually his own Shiite sect.

This feeling of disenfranchisement among Sunnis may have helped ISIS claim, and hold, swathes of Iraqi territory. The well-armed Sunni tribes of Nineveh province and west to the Syrian border could have turned the tide against ISIS, but there was little incentive to fight for a government they felt has sidelined their needs for years. On top of that, many Sunnis and Kurds argue al-Maliki stacked what should have been a non-partisan, non-sectarian army with politically appointed, often Shiite commanders, turning the Iraqi national forces in to his own private militia. That army proved weak and thousands of Iraqi soldiers simply dropped their weapons and fled in June as ISIS fighters approached.

“In every country the military should be separate from the government,” said Al-Jaf. “But al-Maliki used the military to serve himself. The army should serve the country and the people. He filled all the military’s with high positions from his family.”

Now, there is heavy pressure from inside Iraq, regional leaders and the U.S. to dismantle the sectarianism that has fractured the country and left it vulnerable to ISIS. Al-Taee, who is from Basra, says many Shiite leaders now understand this and will push for more inclusive politics under the new government. “If al-Abadi doesn’t do this he will be considered weak and the other party leaders will sack him,” he said, noting that a failure on this front could cause the international community to withdraw diplomatic and military support. “The Shiites now know the importance of dialogue and they don’t want to make the same mistake as before.”

But it may be too late. The mistakes by al-Maliki’s government have further exacerbated the divisions in an already fractured country and may have made the disintegration of Iraq all but inevitable. Many here now talk of dividing the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish territories. Since the start of the crisis with ISIS sectarian calls to arms have intensified on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide. The task ahead for al-Abadi will not be an easy one.

“If he can build a strong Iraq and share equally with all the people of Iraq, the people will support him and we can defeat ISIS,” said Irfan Ali, an engineer from Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. Getting the Sunni masses and tribes back on board for a national government will be key. But even if the Sunnis give their support, Shiites and Kurds may be hesitant to provide them with arms to fight ISIS—worried about where those guns will be pointed once the militants are defeated.

For their part, the Kurds have kept their distance with the central government, and are now engaged with ISIS themselves. They have been in conflict with Baghdad for months over power sharing and oil exports resulting in the central government halting transfer payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in January. “We have been clear that we are not just looking for a change in the faces in the government,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations. “We want a change in the power sharing arrangement and a more inclusive government.”

Amid the chaos created by the ISIS invasion, the Kurds have managed to secure contested territories, such as Kirkuk, and have inched closer to independence. Last month, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said that he will hold a referendum on Kurdish sovereignty, a decades-old goal of the Kurdish people.

It’s not clear what a new prime minister could offer the Sunnis and Kurds to bring them back into the political fold with Baghdad. But leaders in Iraq seem hopeful, though cautious. “This is the start of process,” said Bakir. “But we need to wait and see. We shouldn’t be too optimistic.”

TIME Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki Steps Down, Gives Up Post to Rival

Embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki caved to international pressure and gave up his post to Haider al-Abadi

(BAGHDAD) — Iraq’s embattled Nouri al-Maliki has stepped down as prime minister, caving in to international and domestic pressure to give up his post to a rival politician.

The move defuses a political deadlock that has plunged Iraq into uncertainty and opens way for the formation of a new government that could take on a growing insurgency by Sunni militants that has engulfed much of the country.

Al-Maliki made the announcement on national television late Thursday, standing alongside senior members of his Islamic Dawa Party, including rival Haider al-Abadi. He said he was stepping aside in favor of his “brother,” in order to “facilitate the political process and government formation.”

The premier-designate al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker, now faces the immense challenge of trying to unite Iraqi politicians. The country’s major political factions deeply distrust each other and the army seems unable to regain territory in the north and west taken by militants from the Islamic State group.

Al-Maliki had been struggling for weeks to stay on for a third four-year term as prime minister amid an attempt by opponents to push him out, accusing him of monopolizing power and pursuing a fiercely pro-Shiite agenda that has alienated the Sunni minority.

The United States, the U.N. and a broad array of political factions in Iraq had backed al-Abadi, saying only a new leader could unify a country under siege from the Islamic State extremists who have captured large swaths of Iraqi territory.

Al-Maliki said his decision reflected a desire to “safeguard the high interests of the country,” adding that he would not be the cause of any bloodshed.

His refusal to give up the post after eight years in power had provoked a political crisis that escalated this week in Baghdad. The pressure intensified when his Shiite political alliance backed al-Abadi to replace him, and President Fouad Massoum nominated al-Abadi on Monday to form the next government. Al-Maliki threatened legal action against the president for what he said was a violation of the constitution.

But in a meeting of his party earlier Thursday, al-Maliki agreed to endorse al-Abadi, two senior lawmakers from his State of Law parliamentary bloc — Hussein al-Maliki and Khalaf Abdul-Samad — told The Associated Press. The two said al-Maliki also agreed to drop a suit before the constitutional court challenging al-Abadi’s nomination.

The White House commended al-Maliki’s move and expressed hope that the power shift “can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people” against the threat from Islamic militants, national security adviser Susan Rice said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the move “sets the stage for a historic and peaceful transition of power in Iraq.”

Al-Maliki had grown increasingly isolated as he was deserted not only by his Shiite allies but also top ally Iran, the United States and the U.N. backed al-Abadi, who has 30 days to put together a Cabinet for parliament’s approval.

The U.N. Security Council urged al-Abadi to work swiftly to form “an inclusive government that represents all segments of the Iraqi population and that contributes to finding a viable and sustainable solution to the country’s current challenges.”

Iraqis of all sects welcomed Thursday’s announcement.

“Now, all we want is a government that respects the people and does not discriminate against them,” said Youssef Ibrahim, 40, a Sunni government employee in Baghdad.

Adnan Hussein, 45, a Shiite in Sadr City, said he believes al-Maliki is to blame for much of Iraq’s troubles. “The years he ruled were the worst in Iraq’s history and he bears that responsibility,” Hussein said.

The U.S. and other countries have been pushing for a more representative government that will ease anger among Sunnis, who felt marginalized by al-Maliki’s administration, which helped fuel the dramatic sweep by the Islamic State extremist group.

The militants’ lightning advance across much of northern and western Iraq since June has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and last week prompted the U.S. to launch aid operations and airstrikes as the militants threatened religious minorities and the largely autonomous Kurdish region.

The U.N. on Wednesday declared the situation in Iraq a “Level 3 Emergency” — a decision that came after some 45,000 members of the Yazidi religious minority were able to escape from a remote desert mountaintop where they had been encircled by Islamic State fighters, who view them as apostates and had vowed to kill any who did not convert to Islam.

The U.N. said it would provide increased support to the Yazidis and to 400,000 other Iraqis who have fled since June to the Kurdish province of Dahuk. A total of 1.5 million people have been displaced by the fighting.

The United States has been carrying out airstrikes in recent days against Islamic State fighters, helping fend back their advance on Kurdish regions.

The European Union’s foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting Friday on Iraq to coordinate their stance on military support for the Kurds and on providing humanitarian assistance for those fleeing the fighting.

___

Abdul-Zahra reported from Boston. Associated Press writers Vivian Salama, Sinan Salaheddin and Murtada Faraj in Baghdad, Elaine Ganley in Paris, and Robert Burns and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.

TIME Middle East

Iraq’s Embattled Prime Minister Agrees to Step Down

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq on December 3, 2011.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Baghdad on Dec. 3, 2011 Hadi Mizban—AP

A successor had been nominated earlier this week

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on Thursday evening that he would support the man nominated to replace him and step down, according to a report that cited state television, marking an apparent end to weeks of political uncertainty that threatened to consume the country as it battles extremists in the north.

The Associated Press reports Maliki announced in a televised address that he was leaving the post with an aim to preserve Iraq’s “unity” and had withdrawn his legal complaint against his replacement’s nomination, paving the way for Haider al-Abadi to assume the role and form an inclusive government. Al-Maliki had initially remained defiant after Iraqi President Fouad Massoum tapped al-Abadi to succeed him earlier in the week, insisting he deserved a third term, raising the specter that he would use his entrenched Shi‘ite supporters to forcefully oppose the move.

He planned to pursue his bid in the courts to retain power as recently as Wednesday, but was coming under growing pressure to relent, including from other Shi‘ite leaders and from the U.S. For weeks, al-Maliki has come under fire for failing to stem the incursion of Islamist militants from over the border with Syria. The Sunni extremists, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, have seized a large swath of northern Iraq with such fury that the U.S. was compelled to intervene with targeted air strikes and humanitarian aid drops for a threatened Yezidi minority.

The U.S. has pushed for a more inclusive government amid criticism that al-Maliki had marginalized Iraq’s Sunni population and opened the door for the militants’ lightning offensive that began in mid-June.

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